As we await the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on two important cases involving rights for homosexual couples, it is difficult to overlook a particular irony: While legal recognition of same-sex “marriage” will indeed harm the institution itself, many proponents of traditional marriage are overlooking the real danger. In fact, most of us greatly overestimate the number of homosexual persons in the United States today, which is actually quite low.
Even if our laws recognize same-sex unions, marriage between heterosexual spouses will remain the foundation of our civilization. There is no greater predictor of the success of children as adults than whether they were raised by biological parents who stayed married to each other. But the institution of marriage has taken a beating over the past five decades.
The marriage rate is the lowest ever recorded. Unmarried cohabitation is rapidly becoming an acceptable forerunner and/or alternative to marriage. Among existing marriages, many are fragile and strained: Forty percent to 50% of all first marriages are still projected to end in divorce.
Among the many compelling reasons to focus our attention on strengthening marriages is the likelihood that this “tactic” may be the single most effective means of weakening the forces at work to change the nature of marriage itself. Now seems an opportune time to go back to the basics: to rebuild small communities of faithful, lifelong marriages in which families, friends, churches and communities hold spouses accountable for their marriage vows. Such support structures used to exist naturally at every level of society.
But today those sources of positive peer pressure to accept traditional standards of marital behavior have virtually disappeared. They have all too often been replaced by a message of encouragement to either forgo marriage altogether or to abandon marriage when it becomes challenging (as it usually does).
If we begin by protecting and strengthening our own marriages, we may then attend to struggling marriages in our families and our parishes. This two-part article is intended to provide ideas and practical tools to accomplish these two goals. Part one addresses four common myths about marriage and divorce, and helps to explain why many marriages are floundering. Part two provides practical ideas for strengthening marriages.
Myth No. 1: Marriage is simply a contract between two consenting adults. Divorce is an agreed breaking of the contract. Both are private matters and therefore not subject to outside interference.
This notion of privacy is grounded in the same flawed thinking that resulted in the national legalization of abortion. It is the basis of our current system of family law, a billion dollar industry that thrives on the dismantling of marriages. Our culture tells us that the sexual behavior of others is not only inconsequential to us, but off limits for discussion. Yet the sociological trends of the past five decades defy such logic. When Christians go to a wedding, they are witnesses to the marriage vow – to the contract, yes, but primarily to the covenant. The Catechism says the following about weddings: “Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church. … The public character of the consent protects the "I do" once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it” (1631).
Note the use of the word “protect.” Our witness of a marriage vow taken by our children, siblings, extended family, friends — can help defend that marriage from destruction. The forces at work to destroy marriages today are so strong. Let us put away modern notions of privacy, which allow us to simply look the other way when we see a couple struggling, and begin to take seriously our responsibility as Christians to help spouses remain faithful to their vows to honor, love, and protect until death.
Myth No. 2: Most divorces occur among marriages characterized by serious conflict or abuse of some kind.
Recent studies show that between one-half to two-thirds of all divorces in this country do not end marriages characterized by serious conflict (physical or emotional abuse, extreme unhappiness). One study found that a majority of divorces (some 75%) occurred in marriages described by the spouses as happy only five years earlier. As one might imagine, children whose parents end what is a relatively stable, safe, and well-functioning marriage experience strong negative consequences even into adulthood, including poorer psychological well-being, lower marriage satisfaction, and weaker social connections with friends and relatives. It is also noteworthy that spouses who end low-conflict marriages report a decline in overall happiness.
Why would someone leave a marriage that is relatively normal and healthy? Social science data suggest this decision is a function of several factors operating at once: a spouse’s perceptions of how rewarding the marriage is, barriers to leaving the marriage (e.g., moral values, social stigma, financial dependence, legal barriers), available alternatives to the marriage (e.g., a flirty woman at the workplace), expectations for the marriage (either reasonable or untenable), and finally level of commitment. Sadly, in the wake of the divorce revolution, many of these environmental-cultural factors are stacked against the paradigm of fidelity in a lifelong marriage.
What is the remedy? It is perhaps a too well-kept secret of our Christian faith: that the mystery of lifelong matrimony is a direct reference to Christ giving of himself on the cross. Christ died to save his bride, the Church. Following this model of self-sacrifice, spouses are called to completely empty themselves until they have nothing more to give. What a beautiful and paradoxical mystery. A spouse sanctifies himself or herself by giving everything to the spouse, thereby experiencing a bit of heaven every day of their lives on this earth.
Myth No. 3: When one spouse has an extramarital affair and abandons the marriage, some attribute of the other spouse must have played a role. In other words: it necessarily takes two people to destroy a marriage.
Dr. Shirley Glass, a psychologist and marriage therapist who studied marital infidelity, called this “The Prevention Myth.” That is, most people believe an affair can be prevented by being a loving and dedicated spouse. Glass conducted a study that found 56% of men and 34% of women who had extramarital affairs reported being in happy marriages.
Sometimes our assumption is that when someone cheats, or when someone files for divorce, both spouses have contributed to the demise of the marriage in some form or another. Sometimes that is the case, but frequently it is not. In fact, research suggests that roughly 80% of all divorces are situations in which only one spouse breaks his or her vow and/or refuses to continue to work on the marriage. These may be more aptly described as cases of spousal abandonment than “divorce,” a term that has come to imply a mutual parting of ways.
It’s helpful to make a distinction between what are really the norms of married life, and the decision to stop working on a marriage altogether. A proper, realistic view of marriage is that it is a common vocation of two imperfect people whom Christ has dignified with his presence in the wedding at Cana, where He raised the human love between a man and a woman to a supernatural dimension. To claim that a spouse’s personality caused infidelity or divorce is to fail to acknowledge this spiritual reality.
Perhaps a wife is the controlling type who yells during fights, or a husband is the silent type who avoids conflict at all costs. A spouse may claim he or she “no longer feels in love.” These problems fall within the range of normal — very normal! And yet these are most often seen as legitimate excuses for having an affair or filing for divorce. Every marriage will encounter difficulties relating to undesirable characteristics of both spouses. The question for each couple, ultimately, is whether they are committed to working on their own defects of character, while honoring their vows of fidelity and unconditional love. Sometimes this will mean having the humility and emotional maturity to seek help for the marriage in the form of marriage mentors, a trusted clergy member, or a well-researched Christian marriage counselor.
Myth No. 4: To speak publicly about the devastation caused by spousal abandonment (or infidelity) is uncharitable because it makes divorced people feel uncomfortable.
The task of debunking this myth falls perhaps to priests as much as to laypeople, because the clergy are regularly in a position to speak publicly on the harder social issues — and so many do. But the reality is that most parishioners hear very little from the pulpit about the difficulties marriages face today, or about the devastation caused by spousal abandonment.
Perhaps it is surprising that one of the most piercing admonitions on this subject came from a tiny Albanian nun — a woman known for her charity perhaps more than any other attribute. Here is some of what Blessed Mother Teresa had to say to the Irish people as they pondered the legalization of divorce:
“Divorce breaks, destroys and causes terrible temptations. And it also causes suffering and pain to the heart, to the children and to the whole family. Divorce is one of the biggest killers of family, love and unity. … I also know that there are great problems in the world, that many spouses do not love each other enough to be faithful until death. We cannot solve all the problems in the world but let us never bring in the worst problem of all and that is to destroy love. And that is what we are doing when we tell married people they can divorce each other and go with someone else.
And note her insight on the generational nature of divorce:
“Besides, a country that accepts divorce will soon have more and more broken families that lead to more disunity... and to more divisions in other families. This is not only because divorce is a destroyer of love, unity and peace but also because the divorced feel lonely and often find friends of their own age who are usually married. This kind of friendship breaks up other marriages and this just goes on and on.”
Mother Teresa’s letter reminds us that our duty to act in Christian charity is not to mitigate destructive behavior with nice words that make people feel comfortable; it is to lead people toward the truth. It is the clarity of Mother’s message, to include the discomfort it may cause some who have abandoned their vows, which is so loving! Let us begin to challenge our culture’s definition of charity, which is to seek and encourage temporal satisfaction for ourselves and those around us, at all costs. Let us reclaim the meaning of true Christian love for the sake of every marriage.
Father Juan Puigbó holds a
sacred theology licentiate in systematic theology from
The Catholic University of America and a master’s degree in marriage and family
from the Universidad de Navarra, Spain. He is currently a parochial vicar
at All Saints Parish in Manassas, Virginia.
Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children.
Her scholarly background is in behavioral genetic research on individual adjustment behaviors,
including depression and anxiety, and in the area of marriage and parenting relationships.
Towers conducted her doctoral research at George Washington University’s Center for Family Research
in Washington and has been published in multiple academic journals and books.
Towers currently writes on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment,
especially as those issues are treated within the Catholic Church.